Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords and the war ‘over here’

In all the ways that matter, Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona is a classic example of the storied “best and brightest” of American politicians: an independent thinker not locked in the amber of party label, a woman of principle, someone who, consistent with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated definition of a first-rate intelligence, can keep two opposed ideas in her head at the same time and still function — by all accounts admirably.

Giffords, 40, has taken a hard line on undocumented immigration, owns a Glock 9mm handgun and has been an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, once petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling overturning a ban on handguns in the District of Columbia. She rode a motorcycle and apparently wanted more National Guard forces along the perilous U.S. Mexico border — social and practical considerations for a Democrat living and working in the GOP-dominant 8th Congressional District.

But that independent streak wasn’t enough for some ideologues. Gabby Giffords’ backing of the Obama health-care reform signed into law in March brought her to the attention of someone or someones who trashed her office "a few hours after the House vote overhauling the nation’s health care system," The New York Times reported.

Giffords’ vote on the Obama health care plan also raised the ire of political personality Sarah Palin, who tweeted: “Commonsense Conservatives & lovers of America: 'Don't Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” Her Facebook page of the same day featured a map of the United States with rifle-scope crosshairs superimposed over 20 Democratic congressional-controlled districts — including Giffords’ 8th in Arizona.

“We’ll aim for these races and many others,” Palin says on the Facebook page. “This is just the first salvo …” The map was featured on Palin’s SarahPAC Web site as well.

“We're on Sarah Palin's targeted list, but the thing is, that the way that she has it depicted has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district,” Giffords said in an interview with MSNBC. “When people do that, they have to realize that there are consequences to that action."

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On Saturday morning a little after 10 a.m., outside the Safeway store at 7110 N. Oracle Road in Tucson, Ariz., Giffords was shot in the head at point blank range when an assailant, Jared Lee Loughner, 22, opened fire as she met with constituents at a "Congress on Your Corner" outreach event.

While Giffords survived the shooting and doctors are cautiously optimistic for her recovery, six other people were killed in Loughner’s rampage, including U.S. District Judge John Roll; a Giffords staff member, and a nine-year-old girl. At least 13 other people were wounded.

It’s too soon to know for sure if there’s a connection between Loughner, whose grasp of reality was apparently lost sometime ago, and the roughneck ideologues who can’t tolerate people who don’t think like them. Even Palin, the passive-aggressive political maven and Fox News instapundit, felt compelled to go back to Facebook for some historical revisionism of her own:

“My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today's tragic shooting in Arizona,” Palin wrote Saturday, anticipating the blowback for the SarahPAC map. “On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.”

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The public pushback against Loughner’s apparent actions has been forceful (and, unlike that from Palin, less expedient). “We do not yet have all the answers," President Obama said on Saturday morning at the White House. "What we do know is that such a senseless and terrible act of violence has no place in a free society.”

Keith Olbermann said much the same thing in a special weekend “Special Comment” on MSNBC that calls on public figures in politics and media to resist the urge to invoke heated language. “Violence, or the threat of violence, has no place in our democracy,” he said.

If only that were fully true. The fact is that, as a survey of the long chain of American history reveals repeatedly, violence and the threat of same has long had a place in our democracy. Ballistic language has for generations been a favorite rhetorical device for objectifying one’s enemies, real or imagined, political and otherwise.

What’s undeniable, as Olbermann and you and me and everyone we know understand, is that such violence should not have a place in our democracy. At a Saturday news conference, Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County, Ariz., also gets the broader impact of the Giffords incident, its wider resonance as it plays out in his own state.

“When you look at unbalanced people, how they respond to the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government,” Dupnik said  “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous. And unfortunately, Arizona, I think, has become the capital. We have become the mecca for prejudice and bigotry."

Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva agrees. “"The climate has gotten so toxic in our political discourse, setting up for this kind of reaction for too long. It's unfortunate to say that. I hate to say that," Grijalva said Saturday in an interview with Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post.

"If you're an opponent, you're a deadly enemy," Grijalva said. "Anybody who contributed to feeding this monster had better step back and realize they're threatening our form of government."

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A HuffPost community moderator, 4real, has a sense of what’s at stake: “This was a terrorist attack. If this guy was Muslim you would have Peter King all over the TV saying this was a terrorist attack on our democracy. There is no difference between this guy and a terrorist.”

It may take that kind of speaking truth to power, that sort of forthright characterization, to move our collective sensibilities about such events. Because make no mistake, what happened on Saturday was an act of terrorism directed at the United States, and it’s no less barbaric because it originated among American citizens.

It all points to how the next act in the war on terrorism may be right here in America. Much has been made in recent years of the rationale for the two foreign wars this nation is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan: “We fight ‘em over there so we don’t have to fight ‘em over here.”

What the events of Saturday should show us, if we’re paying attention, is the falsity of that choice. As long as our congressmen and women can be attacked figuratively and literally; as long as a legally-empowered abortion provider can be assassinated with the complicity of an unctuous talk-show host whose vilification established the air of approval and permission that helped make that assassination possible; as long as political personalities with little or no skin in the policy game can inject ballistic metaphor into the public discourse whenever it suits them, regardless of consequences ... when those things happen, we do have to fight an enemy in the war on terrorism — right here.

Christina Taylor Green would testify to that, if only she could. Christina was one of the people shot to death in Tucson on Saturday. She was nine years old.

Christina Taylor Green was born on Sept. 11, 2001 — born at the literal dawn of the war on terrorism. Or certainly the first salvo.

If we're at all honest, we'll recognize that our first, worst wars on terrorism have been less matters of foreign conflict and more matters of domestic violence. If we’re at all honest, we have to own the ways in which we have met the new enemy in that war, and he, or she, is us.

Image credits: Giffords: via The Huffington Post. Map: SarahPAC Web site. Green: Arizona Republic.

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